Sunday, December 15, 2019

Woman with Red Dress(and Spots) 2017

I find myself making, and then being attracted to, what I see as these extremely ugly pieces. They are something I haven't seen before which is very intriguing for any artist. It's a lonely pursuit because, even though I think they are quite wonderful, not many people do. When I put the actual image or the virtual Jpeg in front of them, people just don't respond. I don't know if they have no reaction, if they just aren't interested in the piece, or just plain old don't like them but are too polite to say. It's always hard to guess what people are thinking when you show them work and their faces stay blank and you are ultra sensitive, neurotic, and paranoid to boot.  This is when you wish you had the stature of a Picasso or an O'Keeffe so that whatever you did would be fawned over and then bought for hundreds of thousands of dollars no matter what people really thought.  But, for now, I'll continue to make these odd portraits and then stash away them in my flat files, taking them out every now and then to marvel at how fantastic I think they are.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Five Birds 2005

I have always believed that when a person first dies, there is a small window where they can still communicate with the living world.  When my father died, it was through a Southwest Airlines Boarding Pass that made me aware of his presence.  It was totally my father: funny, clever, and complicated. And when my mother died earlier this week I had a similar experience. My mother loved birds, and her backyard outside of Santa Fe was constantly full of them coming and going, eating, bathing, chatting, and quarreling.* Even so, when I took our dogs for a walk that next day, I wasn't thinking about Mom's birds, just about all those complicated emotions that happen when someone you love dies.  But as we walked, I noticed a small bird running on the ground in front of us, scuttling through the leaves. Something was wrong with it's wing, so it jutted out to the side as she moved away from us.  I worried for her safety, but knew I couldn't do anything about it.  On the way back, about an hour later, the same little bird, at the same place, began running in front of us again, and I knew it was Mom.  I didn't know for sure what she was trying to tell me, just that it was her.  Was she using the injured little bird to make some kind of a comment or was it just her way of getting my attention, letting me know she was still here?    I felt a deep sadness, both for the little bird, and for the fact that my mother was gone. Perhaps that's what the little bird was for--to help me more clearly see and feel the loss of my mother.


Sunday, October 27, 2019

Girl with Spotted Horse 2018

At the age of 90, as my mother gets ready to cross the River Styx, I've had lots of time to think about her and our relationship, the most profound and, to this point, the longest of my life.  Like most mothers of those times, she did her best to be a good mother, but without much awareness of herself or of her children(by the age of 8 I had a mouth full of cavities from eating all of the sweets and junk food that were our staples).  My mother was angry much of the time, and for good reason:  a husband who was mostly absent and two kids who constantly fought with each other.  I was alone and lonely, my big brother tormenting me without any adult supervision to keep things from getting out of hand.  But I had something that made things okay, and that is that my mother always made sure I had horses in my life.  I learned to ride when I was four and by the time I was seven we lived on ten acres with 5 horses to care for.  From that time on, I always had a horse that was appropriate to my skill level, until I left home at 16, leaving my old gray quarter horse, Reb, behind.  Because of Reb, Red, Rio Grande and Hondo, I could get on bareback and ride for miles in the undeveloped country outside of Santa Fe.  My horses were my best friends.  In a way, they cared for me. They helped me be whole and gave me what people couldn't.  And now, with my mother mostly not of this world, I can only thank her in my heart, and on this page, for what she gave me.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Family Trouble 2017

Families are so very very complicated.  We all carry, in our DNA, the need to belong, to be loved, and to be part of that very first community--our family. Yet it never seems that simple, and now, as my parents age, and those of most of my friends, and now that we are their care-takers, cracks have begun to appear in the structures of those families.  The cracks may have started years ago with a divorce, sibling rivalry, or some kind of bitter separation, but now, as the oldsters fade and need our help managing in a world they can't really deal with, everything shifts.  Old wounds re-open, new relationships form, resentments fester. Some children end up being the main caretakers while others have little or nothing to do with their aging parent.  One of my friends, lovingly recorded, on facebook the long decline of her mother and father, including curling up in bed with her mother as she lay dying. But that's not the norm.  Other friends talk about how angry they are with a certain sibling for the favoritism shown by the parent, even as they lay dying.  My own grandmother couldn't remember my mother's name  as she declined, but could remember those of her other four children. That had to have been a tough one, although, of course, my mother no longer has a memory of the event.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Coyote Head 2019

Today was a day of finding dead things. As I was filling the my horse tank water-garden this morning, I noticed gold where it shouldn't have been, floating at the edge of the tank surrounded by cattails. Sure enough, it was my largest, oldest goldfish.  Later, while eating lunch, I heard a shrill kind of squeal.  Since we have two small dogs, I'm always worried about coyote abductions, so I rushed out to see what was going on. I found Niko, our rat terrier, doing something to a dying squirrel(sniffing, eating??).  I ruined his day by making him leave his incredible god-given kill/find and then later I came out with a shovel and tossed the corpse over the fence, hoping that that same coyote I'm so nervous about would show up for a good meal.

For years I've used photographs of dead animals to inform my work. The Coyote in "Coyote Head" was from a coyote's body I found, perfectly preserved, by the side of the road while cycling. Snakes, birds, coyotes, and deer are my animals of choice, but I have also photographed dead bugs, dead mice, dead squirrels, and mummified cats. There are two other woman artist/photographers who use animal corpses in their work and are friends of mine--Kate Breakey and S. Gayle Steven.  I think we are of a certain breed of woman artists, perhaps bordering on the bruja, or shamanic. I know both women are fearless in retrieving and using the bodies of the animals they find--much braver than I since I only photograph them in situ. But today I found that I had no interest in photographing my two finds.  I'm not sure why, just that there was no impulse when there would have been five years ago. 

*a friend just told me about another “bruja” artist named Judith Crispin pretty great stuff.


Monday, September 2, 2019

Child Being Held 1987

This past Saturday, our family placed our 90 year old mother into a care situation.  She had been living alone for the last thirty years, the last ten of those years with increasing dementia. Two weeks ago we realized she needed round the clock care after some kind of set back where she couldn't take care of her basic needs, like going to the bathroom or getting herself a glass of water.

Ironically, the care situation we put her in was the exact same bedroom that her ex-husband(Nick) had died in six weeks ago  Richard and Raymond take fragile people into their home and care for them until they die.  They are kind and capable men so we felt good about the fact that they still had a place open for Mom.  Needless to say, we had dreaded the day.  We had arranged for me to meet various family members and Mom at Richard and Raymond's on my way back from Colorado. My brother and I rolled her into the kitchen where she took a seat and shook hands with R&R as we all swarmed around getting her room ready and giving Richard the information he needed. Expecting some kind of meltdown, we were relieved to find Mom quietly moving into her new bedroom, where she lay down on the bed, and then drifted off, murmuring a quiet agreement and squeezing my hand when I said I thought she was going to really like her new home.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Horse with Spots 2011

I take a shower just about everyday.  This piece is hanging above our towel rack, across from the bath, so as I climb out, shower finished and reach for my towel,  I look at it.  It has a translucent quality because of the transparency of the horse and the orange and yellow ocher spots glow on the pale blue ground. Simple, elegant, vibrant. Looking at it, I experience a feeling of deep pleasure and quiet gratitude.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Woman with Blue Arms 2019

As an artist, I'm always walking the fine line between control and letting things happen.  It's a fine, razor edge kind of a deal. Too much letting things happen and I get a chaotic mess, too much control and I get lifeless.  The first part of losing control happens with my painting:  I push, pull, and throw the paint, completely turning over to whatever properties the paint or surface has--  drippy, stiff, runny, bright, dull or vibrant.  I let whatever feelings I'm feeling take over: angry, sad, happy, bored, indifferent, excited, frustrated, proud. Paint is everywhere, my shoes taking the biggest hit. The next part is building the image--not as wild a ride, but still a delicate balance of finding what works with what might not work; guessing, hunching, thinking, and going back and forth from my collection of photos on paper to the ones on my computer or camera, or to my collection of painted papers, printed pages, insides of envelopes, or scrapbook pads from Michael's Stores. There's a lot.  And if I've been good, and if the Art Gods know that I've really and truly abandoned any ideas that I may have started with, I may just end up with a wonderfully strange and unexpectedly beautiful image.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Nick and Bob Laughing 1983

Aside from my innate drive to draw horses, one of the biggest influences I had as a young artist was my mother's marriage to Nick, a Greek man who worked as a waiter at night and painted during the day.  He and my mother married when I was 9 years old.

He was fun, he was a great cook, and he lived life to the fullest. He learned to drive not long after meeting my mother and would drive us cross county in our old pickup truck, recklessly bouncing over arroyos and sagebrush, always stuck in whatever gear he happened to last use, us kids shrieking in the back with delight and fear,  We had dogs and a sheep, huge vegetable gardens, and he was always working (not so expertly it turns out) on our house or properties they had bought. But after 17 years of marriage, it all fell apart.  It was a hateful breakup, full of acrimony and spite.  All that was petty and small in both my mother and in Nick emerged and they would never be friends again.  However, Nick stayed in our lives, more my father than my biological father ever had been. He retired from his job with the state(no longer the bohemian artist)and traveled the world with a backpack full of vitamins and a change of underwear, making friends wherever he went.

Unfortunately, his bad relationship with my mother would come back to haunt me.  In the last ten years of his life, he began to be cold, rude  and abrupt with me.  It seemed that he was confusing me with my mother, and now, with hindsight, we realized that it signaled the beginning of his dementia. He died at the age of 91, peacefully--if death is ever peaceful.  He couldn't see, could barely hear, and his memory was mostly gone, yet one of the last things he told my sister was that he wanted to live to be 100.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Ramey 1993

I've been going through my old black and white negatives and scanning some of them into my computer.  I have thousands, so it means looking through lots of contact sheets and identifying the ones that, for whatever reason, speak to me. I then (carefully) pull them out of their plastic holders and drop them onto the glass of my scanner.  It takes some time for them to scan, so I wait patiently and try and remember to file them correctly so I can find them once they are in my computer. In years past, I would print the images out in my darkroom, then(heavily) paint over them with oil paints.  Now, however, I'm looking for something different, but, I'm not sure what that is.

I'm not taking many photographs these days.  I have the feeling when I pick up my camera that I've already taken that picture, already seen how that particular thing would look as a photograph. In looking through these old negatives, I'm impressed by just how many not very good photos there are. The quality of the photograph never really affected the painted photo that followed since the paint changed the nature of the image so much.  Underexposed, overexposed, dirty negative--as my friends liked to point out, it didn't really matter since I was going to paint over the photo anyway. However,  there are some quite wonderful ones which have never been seen.  I may have to see what I can do about that.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Father Book 1997

"As a young man, he found it difficult to pull himself together"

  "During his middle years, he kept to himself"

 "As he aged, he felt the noose growing tighter and tighter"

Relationships with fathers can be problematic.


Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Falling Sky III

I make my living primarily though selling my work and teaching workshops around the country.  The teaching is fairly seamless:  I enjoy teaching, and people like working with me. I'm invited to teach at different schools and art centers, and with many of these places, I go back year after year.  However, galleries are a different beast. I have a long history with gallery representation starting in my twenties--I was with two of my galleries for over 20 years. But nothing stays the same.  As Heidi Klum of Project Runway liked to say, "One day you're in, and the next day, you're out!" Because galleries are so often the only feed back we have in the success of our work, if we aren't showing/selling we began to feel that what we are doing isn't valid, and we take this lack of sales as personally as is humanly possible.  As artists, instead of thinking as an adult in the business world would, we react like children who aren't receiving the love we (so desperately) need. We began to tumble down the stairway of self doubt, and before we know it, we are splayed on the floor at the bottom of the stairs, broken and bleeding

But, like the children we really are, we don't know any other way, so we pull ourselves up off the "failure" floor and continue to make more work, thinking that there must be some magic trick that will make the work popular, sell like crazy and allow us to feel validated. Of course there isn't a magic trick, but a combination of making good, original work, and finding the right people to support and believe in what we do who are at the same time competent and capable marketers.  And of course, we ourselves have to learn those same skills in marketing ourselves, distasteful and onerous as it seems to most of us.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Girl with No Hair 2019

Years ago I found a photograph of a young woman in a bathrobe.  I think it was in a newspaper, but I'm not sure.  I can't remember where the photo was taken, or what it was about, just that I loved the honest intensity of her gaze and her bald head. So I cut it out and kept it.

Recently I found out about the death of another student of mine from breast cancer,  Suzanne Simpson. Suzanne took several of my workshops at Anderson Ranch in Colorado, both three week immersives.  She was chronically late for the start of the workshops(by many days), but, once she showed up, she was there.  She was warm, engaging, and loved helping the other students, which was sometimes a problem because she wouldn't get to her own work.  She could perseverate for days on a piece, and would often start completely over if it wasn't exactly right(which made me a little crazy). She did several pieces that were absolutely exquisite; small paintings that combined a cracked surface with a new technique we were just learning, emulsion transfers.

I only found out about her death recently, even though she died over a year and a half ago.  It was a shock to think that she wouldn't be showing up in anymore of my workshops.  I'll miss her.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Bucking Bronco 2019 (three versions)

 Version 1:  My husband, Bob, whose life is very much a kind of joyous wild ride

 Version 2: My eldest daughter who has a very stressful, high powered job, and while she loves it, it's pretty wild.

Version 3:  Me, on the wild ride as well, but more complacent or just resigned to it.

The entire image has been completed, except for the heads.  I'm leaning towards Bob's head.  Possibly it's the most fun.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Making the Universe(Adam and Eve)and Making the Universe(the Beasts) 2010

One of the biggest problems I have, after 40 years of making images, is that I just have too much.  Too much to store, too much to keep track of, too much to leave to my daughters when I die. Today, while going through my digital files, I came across two pieces that I did in 2010.  I had decided they weren't good enough to keep, so they were gessoed over and then made into new paintings. Now, looking at the two, I find myself  thinking, "What the hell was going on with you? How could you have painted over these?".  I love the pattern paper that makes up  the background in both images, for both the physical reality of the lines and the conceptual one of using an image that is all about making something else.  The snake on God's very red chest, and the apple falling from his hand in Adam and Eve give us clear clues as to what this is all about. The stories are strong: at the same time that God is sending the two errant humans out of the garden, he is creating sky, trees, and birds and clouds as well.  With  Beasts he gently urges the elephants out of the flower they have been gestating  in while a huge yellow sun glows in the background.  In both images God is nerdy, but clearly well meaning(but maybe not the best dresser). There is nothing about these two paintings that I don't love, yet they no longer exist except as digital images. And at least now, there are two more paintings that I don't have to worry about.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Wolf at the Door 1998

To Keep the Wolf from the Door: to have just enough money to be able to eat and live, Cambridge Dictionary.

A few days ago we received a card from a long time friend.  Along with a picture of the family, and a recounting of the year's travels and adventures, it also stated that our friend had been diagnosed with (stage 2) ovarian cancer.  She wrote on the card, "Big white waves ahead for us.  And here we go!".  This is not the first friend to be diagnosed with cancer.  Recently, my husband counted four friends who, in the past two years, have been diagnosed and treated for cancers, all serious, including a young, recently married mother diagnosed with breast cancer.  On my side, I  have a friend's sister who is literally, at death's door, and another friend who died last year of pancreatic cancer. The wolf is at the door, although different for everyone. For my mother it is being made frantic at not being able to turn the TV off because she has confused the phone for the remote. For my husband it was a DVT in his leg a year and a half ago, and for a young friend it was his mother being hit by a motorist while on her bicycle, left in a coma for weeks. I could go on and on.  We all have these stories, they just seem to be coming faster and more furiously.  I don't think we can keep the wolf from the door.  He's coming.  Be ready.


Thursday, February 14, 2019

Bob Dreaming 1984

In every successful artist's life there has to be someone that believes in that artist 150%, and for me, that person has always been my husband, Robert Wilson. Not only does he care deeply about what I do, but he has been my subject hundreds and hundreds of times.  The photographs I take of him are awkward and odd, and then I do even stranger things to the photos once I start incorporating paint.  What happens next, once I start painting, has always been a form of magic to me since I have no idea what will come of these images. Something takes over and it's much bigger and better than me. The results speak to me of another world, another reality that I was somehow able to step into for a brief period of time.  Sometimes the images referenced parts of Bob and his personality, as in After the Operation, an image about kindness and concern, taking care of those things smaller and weaker than ourselves, and other times they might reference his being part of a different reality as in Bob as BlackieIn Bob Dreaming, I caught that moment when we go from our sleeping selves to our dreaming selves, separating off into another dimension. Looking back over the years of having made these images, I'm amazed at what we both have managed to accomplish--me with my camera and brushes, Bob with his support, his unconditional love, and his connection to the other side.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Anderson Ranch Winter Intensive January 2019

Sophie Rex Symer with their two self portraits

As a graduate student at Arizona State University in the 70's, I was fortunate enough to have had, as one of my instructors, John Kacere.  A photo realist painter of woman's sexily glad midsections(but mostly of buttocks), John was a fantastic teacher. Short(he let us know that he wore lifts in his cowboy boots) and very intense, he made us all feel that each of us was that one special student. At one point, when John was talking to me about my work, he leaned in, and in his gravelly voice, insisted that I had to follow three rules if I were ever to teach. The rules were:

1.  Know the subject you are teaching inside and out--be very good at what you teach
2. Never give your students more than they can handle
3. Always love every student the same. 

I have gone on to teach now for 30 some years, always workshops in different art centers around the country, or at universities or with privately produced groups of artists who invite me to work with them.  I have found that all three of John's rules are something that I apply in each and every workshop I teach.  As a working artist, I have a depth of knowledge in the very narrow area that I work in:  combining paint with other kinds of imagery, and I've become especially knowledgeable about different transfer processes. I am good at and do know well what I'm teaching.  I have found that rule number 2 is very important, because by allowing someone to get in over their heads and then failing, they are then convinced that they can't do, and will never do whatever that thing is they are attempting. They think it's their entirely their fault, and they want to give up.  I back them out of the problem, and together we come at it from a different direction until they succeed. The last rule is probably the most important, because if someone feels that you are preferring one student over another, they will lose trust in you, even if they are that preferred student.  A class works as one unit, and if there is disharmony or if one  of the students feels left out or overlooked, it affects, negatively, the entire dynamic of the class. The students aren't just learning from you, but also from each other and they need that basis of trust. Finding one's creative voice is such a delicate process, that with any sign of of preferential treatment, that creative voice will go into hiding, and refuse to emerge. 

I would like to think that John, who died in 1999, would be pleased and proud of the way I've continued his legacy of teaching.  I'd like to think that I've helped people become the best artists they can be, just as he helped me all those years ago.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Nancy Oakes Hall: 1957-2018

I first met Nancy as a student of mine at Anderson Ranch here in Snowmass, Colorado. She would eventually take four of my workshops:  two before she was diagnosed with breast cancer and two after. In the first two workshops she struggled to find her voice, but after she returned from her treatment to get rid of the cancer,  she was fierce.  In each of the two latter workshops she progressed rapidly, finding ways to express herself that were novel to all of us, but especially to her.  She worked hard and consistently, the old nagging voices of self doubt gone, replaced by confidence, curiosity, and courage.  In the last workshop she took with me she brought in large, 24”x24” panels, and proceeded to fill them with strange and beautiful landscapes using paint, dictionary pages, and contact paper.  She was focused, and worked about as hard as anyone can work in a room full of 12 other people, keeping her socializing to a minimum, not letting herself be distracted from her work.

On April 18th of this year, Nancy succumbed to her cancer.  She left a legacy, not just of her courage and determination, but two endowments to help other women in their own journeys.  One is a yearly scholarship to help woman in the snow sports(having grown up in Aspen, Nancy had been both a ski racer and a ski instructor), and the other, again, yearly, is for a female artist to take a workshop at Anderson Ranch. I hope I’m lucky enough to have one of those students in one of my workshops.